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An Open Letter to Every Teenager Choking on Their Culture

 

image via everdayfeminism.com

image via everdayfeminism.com

I was in bed after a stressful day of being eleven years old. My eyes were puffy and red and (damn,) still slanted after all of the crying I’d just done. The skin on my monolids and around my cheeks was aggravated and stinging from all of the stretching and pulling I’d just submitted it to – my futile attempt to get that stupid flap of skin to just fold over my eyes correctly. My arms and neck had scratch marks from where I’d attempted to strip myself of my yellow skin in a furious fit of self-loathing. After rocking back and forth for five minutes and staring straight ahead at my bedroom wall, I finally let myself be lulled to sleep. I wished to wake up in a white girl’s body.

If I backtrack, I can easily make sense of how eleven-year-old me came to exist in this tempest (Hurricane Puberty: unkind and unrelenting in its forward movement) of racial hatred and anger.

I grew up in a stiflingly white neighborhood in Brooklyn. We’re talking about our streets’ intersection being flooded with SUVs every morning as parents rushed to drop their sheltered kids off at one of the local Catholic schools, children running in the streets and appearing to be the pinnacle of innocence, but then dropping violently racist slurs in the schoolyard, and our neighbors cracking jokes about some chink at the park right in front of us, as if our living in the neighborhood for a long enough period of time made us liable to laugh at racist quips that undermined our existence. Right.

My classroom was essentially my neighborhood condensed into a gang of twenty or so volatile carbon copies of our parents, so the Asian jokes rolled in. Some kids pulled their eyes into slits while screaming “Ching chong!” at me. (How rare and unheard of.) Some kids made sure to push me on our way to lunch, asking if I’d brought chicken fried rice today. Others asked if my grandmother was the elderly woman they had to shoo away from their recycling bins that morning. Really, the hits kept coming, but they were manageable. They only ever came from a select group of unapologetic agitators and I was always aware that what they were saying wasn’t true; I’d already been read the riot act many times about how bullies are only ever dissatisfied with themselves. It was a comforting thought but it didn’t save me in the long run.

Nevertheless, I lived for six years in that environment. I decided to disconnect myself from my classmates, only ever speaking when spoken to, so that I could easily coast on through without giving anyone anymore opportunities to mock me. In retrospect, this was how I first learned to shrink myself for the sake of others. Despite the fact that I knew there was nothing wrong with being Asian (I knew this with every fiber of my being), it never felt that way. That sense of “x equals white, y equals good, and x equals y” flooded my thoughts at every second of the day. There was one common factor in every scenario where I was picked on or felt inadequate: my Chinese ethnicity, my racial identity blazoned across my features, and so on and so forth. I was awfully precocious and comically angst-ridden as a child, so I knew there was only one way to fix the problem: I had to completely shut it down, no punches pulled.

This meant the polar opposite of the cultural appreciation I quite frankly deserved. It was trying to wash away my heritage from the inside out. (Somewhat “ethnic cleansing”-esque, I will admit, but my mother was right: “hate” is a strong word and it was the only one I had to describe how I felt toward my culture that marked me as the odd kid out every time.) I drew language barriers at my front door so I could severely limit the amount of Cantonese I spoke. I would never eat my grandfather’s dumplings at school, but I’d still make sure to shovel them down before my mother came home to spare her of any concern. Whichever relative was picking me up from school that day was not allowed to speak with a volume anywhere above a private whisper. I never discussed my family if I could help it; it’s pretty difficult for a nine year old to wrap their head around the fact that they don’t know their aunts’, uncles’, or grandparents’ “real” names. I resented my extended family in China and Malaysia for simply existing halfway across the globe. (Yikes.) It’s like fighting a war against an intrinsic part of yourself and thinking that you’ve somehow won by beating your own mentality half to death.

Despite all of my efforts to cut ties to my culture, there was one aspect that I could not deny: my Asian identity was plastered across my face and formed every angle and curve of my body. It was my physical appearance that received the true brunt of my frustration in all of my dissatisfaction with my race. It is an undeniable truth that women of color are almost never painted as the desirable leading woman. We’re tokens and punchlines, commodities and quick tricks for a laugh. So who does an eleven year old Asian American girl in Brooklyn have to look up to when Hollywood is youth’s biggest informant? She holds a white actress’s magazine cover next to her reflection in the mirror to gauge just how stark the shade difference is. She wonders why she cannot force her eyes to appear as big and bold as the woman’s in the Maybelline commercial. (I didn’t even know the term “monolid” existed in junior high. I just assumed there was something weird and wrong about Asian eyes.)

She knows every boy wants to date the femme star of the latest happy-go-lucky sitcom, and the star is always undoubtedly white. She knows that even if she somehow grows out of her awkward body, even if she turns out to be 5’9” and her limbs thin to supermodel proportions, her eyes will still be slanted and her skin will still be yellow. So she doesn’t know how to win that war.

Fast forward approximately three years later and I believe my generation has just unanimously discovered that girls can be sex-positive and gay people exist. (Thanks, Glee!) I’d been traipsing through the realms of social media for just as long when the topic of intersectional feminism had suddenly emerged from the shadows. Out of nowhere, every blogger triumphantly declared their alliance to the sisterhood, and, well, I was on board. I moved on to high school, still a minor character in the social scene, still radically insecure, still adamantly declaring, “Guys, I’m practically a banana: white on the inside!”

Around that time, the topic of race entered the maelstrom of social media commentary stage right and came front and center. It was all a bit too much for me to handle seeing as this was something I’d been angrily stamping out of my life for years. But there was a point. It touched something in me and it helped me to keep going, constantly reminding me that I didn’t deserve the short end of the stick I was given. This rising community of social justice advocates became a support system for me. The criticisms we received weren’t unfamiliar and they were honestly worth it.

Sometime later, I stumbled upon one young blogger’s inexpert analysis of the sins of our hetero-patriarchal society. (The exact details are foggy and the topic is pretty trite, but that doesn’t matter.) What does matter is the term I found within it: internalized racism – “the internalization by people of racist attitudes towards members of their own ethnic group, including themselves”. Something clicked and a domino effect began in my life from that moment on.
This one definition opened the door for me to dissect and question my own thoughts. It explained the shame, the self-hatred, the insecurity that never made sense because insecurity is irrational by nature. Most importantly, learning the definition of internalized racism helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault.

I was the one choking on my culture, I was the one waging a war on my body, but it was those above that handed me the Eurocentric ammunition. I deserved better.

Years later, I am still insecure and angry, because that never leaves you, regardless of race. However, I am at peace with the fact that my Asian identity is imbued in every part of me and that is okay. It’s better than okay. I am finally free to feel the cultural appreciation that I’ve long been denied, though I do still have to correct myself when some racist jab creeps into my thinking. I remember that what I’ve been conditioned to think is almost always false; it’s been a noose dangled in front of me and I won’t walk into it any longer. And to think it was reading those two words (internalized racism) in some teenager’s blog post that convinced me to step off the ledge.

I’m the type of person who tries to find the meaning behind suffering. I like to participate in amateur psychoanalysis of my own pain in life and it drives whoever’s forced to hear me speak up the wall. And I believe the reason I had to lie crying in my bed at age eleven is that I now have words for any other young person of color who wears their culture as a burden or an ever-tightening leash around their neck.

You deserve better.

You deserve to be free of the way you’ve been forced to think.

You’ve been taught to desire something “more” than what you have. You’ve been taught that your non-white being is inherently wrong. And that is simply untrue.

Love,
A recovering internalized racist

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